Tarzan, the Ape Man (1932). 99 minutes. Directed by W. S. Van Dyke. Starring Maureen O’Sullivan (as Jane Parker), Johnny Weissmuller (as Tarzan), Neil Hamilton (as Harry Holt), and C. Aubrey Smith (as James Parker). Dialogue by Ivor Novello.
Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan novels spawned a phenomenally successful franchise that extended into cinema, radio, television, and comic strips. Although the specifics of Tarzan’s character and his basic plot trajectory vary depending on the retelling, Burroughs’s fundamental story involves the wild man living amongst jungle apes and falling for a British female explorer. One of the best expressions of the full-on, kinky possibilities latent in this framework is the 1932 pre-Code Tarzan, the Ape Man. The movie is in some ways monolithic and crude in its colonialist rhetoric; there is a great deal of shouting, animal grunting, humans falling prey to jungle beasts, and condescending depictions of native types. But while the movie is blunt in terms of overall sentiment, … Read the rest
Nightmare Alley (1947). 110 minutes. Directed by Edmund Goulding. Starring Tyrone Power (as Stanton Carlisle), Joan Blondell (as Zeena Krumbein), Coleen Gray (as Molly Carlisle), Helen Walker (as Lilith Ritter), Taylor Holmes (as Ezra Grindle), Mike Mazurki (as Bruno), and Ian Keith (as Pete Krumbein).
Nightmare Alley is a wonderful, exceedingly suggestive, and excessively seedy film noir that follows its protagonist, a mesmerist, as he moves from small-time carnival barker to big-time con artist with legions of devotees. Its themes and atmosphere might quickly convince you that it belongs to the world of noir with its shadows, dark streets, con games, and untrustworthy strangers, but its budget might not. From the sprawling, ten-acre carnival set created for it on the 20th Century Fox backlot to other lush outdoor sets, and even the indulgent evening gowns worn by actress Coleen Gray, Nightmare Alley looks luxurious and expensive, unlike a typical film noir. In spite of its high-end look, the movie was … Read the rest
The Divorcee (1930). 84 minutes. Directed by Robert Z. Leonard. Starring Norma Shearer (as Jerry Martin), Chester Morris (as Ted Martin), Conrad Nagel (as Paul), Robert Montgomery (as Don), Helen Johnson (as Dorothy), Florence Eldridge (as Helen Baldwin), Helene Millard (as Mary), Robert Elliott (as Bill Baldwin), Mary Doran (as Janice Meredith), Tyler Brooke (as Hank), and George Irving (as Dr. Bernard).
The Divorcee is a pre-Code drama that explores betrayal, revenge, and sexual double standards. In particular, it focuses on one woman’s efforts to overturn those standards in an attempt to wound her cheating ex-husband. The movie shows us a fair amount of wild living and is rather frank about its characters’ sex lives while they are single, married, and divorced, making it one of the most provocative of the pre-Code films. Nevertheless, it takes pains to demonstrate how unsatisfying the protagonist’s quest to hurt her ex is. The overall effect is that while the movie allows its female … Read the rest
The Sheik (1921). 80 minutes. Directed by George Melford. Starring Rudolph Valentino (as Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan), Agnes Ayres (as Lady Diana Mayo), Ruth Miller (as Zilah), George Waggner (as Yousaef), Frank Butler (as Sir Aubrey Mayo), Lucien Littlefield (as Gaston), Adolphe Menjou (as Raoul de Saint Hubert), and Walter Long (as Omair).
The Sheik has to be one of the strangest expressions of romance and sexuality that I have seen in a long time. It tells the story of an Arab sheik who abducts an English gentlewoman exploring the deserts of North Africa and holds her captive. At times we see that he hopes she will develop feelings for him, but at others he is intent on having his way with her whether she desires it or not. Regardless of his unsavory intentions, she does fall in love with him, but the movie’s celebration of both him and their relationship is difficult to admire. Overall, The Sheik is an … Read the rest
Safe in Hell (1931). 73 minutes. Directed by William Wellman. Starring Dorothy Mackaill (as Gilda Karlson), Donald Cook (as Carl Erickson), Ralf Harolde (as Piet Van Saal), Morgan Wallace (as Mr. Bruno), John Wray (as Eagan), Ivan Simpson (as Crunch), Victor Varconi (as General Gomez), Nina Mae McKinney (as Leonie), Charles Middleton (as Jones), Clarence Muse (as Newcastle), Gustav von Seyffertitz (as Larson), George F. Marion (as Jack), and Cecil Cunningham (as Angie).
Safe in Hell is a dark but wonderful pre-Code movie about a fiercely willed prostitute on the run from the law in New Orleans and the Caribbean. Although raped and exploited in the United States, and ultimately executed in the context of the seedy underbelly of the South Seas crime world, she lives out her days devoted to her lover and herself with a rebellious passion. And yet, in spite of its serious content, Safe in Hell is actually laden with a great deal of playfulness both … Read the rest
All the King’s Men (1949). 109 minutes. Directed by Robert Rossen. Starring Broderick Crawford (as Willie Stark), John Ireland (as Jack Burden), Joanne Dru (as Anne Stanton), John Derek (as Tom Stark), Mercedes McCambridge (as Sadie Burke), Shepperd Strudwick (as Adam Stanton), Anne Seymour (as Lucy Stark), Katharine Warren (as Mrs. Burden), Will Wright (as Dolph Pillsbury), Raymond Greenleaf (as Judge Monte Stanton), and Walter Burke (as Sugar Boy).
If you have seen Born Yesterday (1950), the wonderful movie about a woman (played by Judy Holiday) who learns about American democracy and in doing do is inspired to end an abusive romantic relationship, you may remember Broderick Crawford as the politically aspiring businessman and thug Harry Brock—the person from whom Holiday’s character frees herself. Crawford’s Brock is brutish and malevolent, but Born Yesterday is not the first time the actor played a civic-minded and power-hungry antagonist. A year earlier he was in the astounding but perhaps today less well-known All … Read the rest
One Million B.C. (1940). 80 minutes. Directed by Hal Roach and Hal Roach, Jr. Starring Victor Mature (as Tumak), Carole Landis (as Loana), Lon Chaney, Jr. (as Akhoba), Conrad Nagel (as narrator), John Hubbard (as Ohtao), Nigel De Brulier (as Peytow), Mamo Clark (as Nupondi), and Inez Palange (as Tohana).
If you have never seen One Million B.C., chances are that if you like old B movies, you have seen it in some other capacity. Portions of it were used as stock footage for years afterwards in such films as the awful Robot Monster (1953) and Teenage Cave Man (1958). Additionally, its Academy Award-nominated visuals inspired the special effects of other monster movies that may also be known to you, such as The Giant Gila Monster (1959) and The Killer Shrews (1959). One Million B.C. is marginally better than those movies—less exploitative, more thoughtful, and more ambitious. But it remains a great example of why movies about prehistoric people … Read the rest
Black Narcissus (1947). 100 minutes. Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Starring Deborah Kerr (as Sister Clodagh), Sabu (as the young general), David Farrar (as Mr. Dean), Kathleen Byron (as Sister Ruth), Flora Robson (as Sister Philippa), Jenny Laird (as Sister Honey), Judith Firse (as Sister Briony), Esmond Knight (as the old general), Jean Simmons (as Kanchi), and May Hallatt (as Angu Ayah).
Black Narcissus is a film of astonishing beauty. I liked it even more than I did The Red Shoes (1948), which was also created by The Archers, the production duo consisting of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Both films tell their stories, which are more than tinged with melodrama, in beautiful three-strip Technicolor. But whereas The Red Shoes tells a story about creative passion that its characters express nightly as members of a ballet company, Black Narcissus documents the development of smoldering erotic passion among a group of Roman-Catholic nuns living in a palace atop … Read the rest
The Wizard of Oz (1939). 101 minutes. Directed by Victor Fleming, King Vidor, and George Cukor. Starring Judy Garland (as Dorothy Gale), Frank Morgan (as Professor Marvel/the Wizard), Ray Bolger (as Hunk/Scarecrow), Jack Haley (as Hickory/Tin Man), Bert Lahr (as Zeke/Cowardly Lion), Billie Burke (as Glinda the Good Witch of the North), Margaret Hamilton (as Miss Almira Gulch/the Wicked Witch of the West), Clara Blandick (as Aunt Em), and Charley Grapewin (as Uncle Henry). Songs by Edgar “Yip” Harburg and Harold Arlen. Based on the novel by L. Frank Baum.
The Wizard of Oz has to be one of the most phenomenal movies ever made: one of the most quotable, one of the most thematically resonant, and one of the most visually memorable (virtually any scene from any part of the movie can be excerpted in still form and people will instantly recognize it). It was not a major success upon its initial release and only achieved its present status … Read the rest
Mildred Pierce (1945). 111 minutes. Directed by Michael Curtiz. Starring Joan Crawford (as Mildred Pierce Beragon), Jack Carson (as Wally Fay), Zachary Scott (as Monte Beragon), Eve Arden (as Ida Corwin), Ann Blyth (as Veda Pierce Forrester), Butterfly McQueen (as Lottie), Bruce Bennett (as Bert Pierce), Lee Patrick (as Maggie Biederhof), Veda Ann Borg (as Miriam Ellis), Moroni Olsen (as Inspector Peterson), and Jo Ann Marlowe (as Kay Pierce). Music by Max Steiner.
Mildred Pierce is equal parts entrepreneurial narrative, film noir, and melodrama. In some regards, it is an earnestly liberal tale about a hard-working woman who divorces, establishes her own business, and becomes a restaurant mogul. But it is also a lurid and somewhat punishing soap opera about her downfall, which is intertwined with and inseparable from her devotion to her evil young daughter Veda. In the end, in order to get its point across, the movie relies on a fairly conservative understanding of rightful social order and … Read the rest